Sometimes, when the work ahead will be tough, God seems to issue an unusually strong call. In the late spring of 2015, a well-grounded working mother in Prague tells her surprised husband that she feels led to leave the better of her two jobs. She has nothing lined up. She’s prayed for more understanding. She can’t explain her feeling that God is calling her to a new vocation, but it just won’t go away. Trusting that God will lead her, she gives notice. Her name is Petra. She’s a faithful attender of Faith Community Church, a church planted and pastored by Serge workers.
As spring turns to summer and summer passes, Petra sees increasingly frequent reports of refugees landing on the beaches of southern Europe, walking north along highways, and streaming off of trains in other European countries. Then, the night before her last day on her old job, Petra sees a report that the Czech Republic is receiving its first wave of refugees. The next day, she goes to the Hlavni Nadrazi, Prague’s main train station, with one hundred bread rolls, one very large jug of cold water, and another jug of hot coffee. She holds a sign she herself cannot read. It says, “Refugee Aid” in Arabic. She has no experience or expertise with displaced people. No one knows she’s here except her husband. But she’s now certain this is the vocation she’ll be part of, a calling she can’t possibly ignore.
While all this is happening, I am at a Serge leadership meeting. We’ve spent the week covering long-term strategies. Behind our circle of laptop screens we shift in our seats while we tie up loose ends. Then someone brings up the refugee crisis in Europe and suggests we ought to respond. My immediate reaction is: Isn’t this late in the week? I say to myself: we aren’t set up to help—in central Europe, we’re church planters, not relief workers—do we even know anyone with the right expertise? Meanwhile someone else talks of God’s compassion toward sojourners and refugees. Someone needs to be realistic, I think.
I have a skeptical heart. It is perhaps a besetting sin.
As a group, we decide to send out an appeal for funds and authorize Eric Brauer, Serge Area Director for the region, to find opportunities to use them.
Petra sits in the Hlavni Nadrazi train station waiting with her sign day after day for two weeks. The local crowds pass by; some stare, some stop to scold her for helping those people, a few spit on her and shove her. Still she waits and yet no refugees arrive.
Finally, she learns that refugees are being held in a detention center away from the capital. With the names of only two refugees among the many, she takes food, clothing, and blankets. Those two give her 20 more names. With 20 more people to visit, 20 more stories to hear, she begins to ask for volunteers to go with her. Petra begins to lead.
Petra doesn’t know what she can legitimately ask or expect at the detention center. She seeks expert advice but receives little. She finds herself praying constantly, sometimes before each sentence when talking with circumspect officials.
As the Czech government begins to process the refugees, they put them on trains to Prague, underdressed for the cold weather, with no money, little information, and 7 days to find their own way to the German border. As the trains pull into the central station, refugees press against the window, looking to see if, by some miracle, their loved ones have been let go at the same time.
Soon Petra has a cadre of volunteers, many from Faith Community Church, working in shifts around the clock, standing on platforms holding signs in Arabic, waiting for the bewildered refugees. The volunteers offer food, clothing, overnight shelter, medication, legal help—any aid they can. They begin to make lists of names to help reunite families.
It is June, almost a year later. I’m in Prague with my wife, Cindy, walking into the meeting place of Faith Community Church. Rev. Phil Davis, our friend and colleague with Serge, introduces us to a soft-spoken, friendly, and unassuming young woman named Petra. He says she works with refugees.
Two days later, Cindy and I sit down with Petra at a local coffee shop. Our intention is to explore ways that Serge apprentices might work with her in the future. I start by asking her how she got interested in working with the displaced. She looks slightly embarrassed and says, with a half smile, “I just had to do it.”
She tells us about her resigning from her job, watching the refugee crisis unfold on the news, deciding to wait at the train station. Her eyes darken as she tells us about going to the press when the government turned a blind eye to abuses in the detention center. It was a tough choice. There had already been anonymous threats on her life. Then she pauses and begins to chuckle incredulously, says that now the press often calls her for comment about a refugee story. Me? A spokeswoman?
At another point, Petra looks away. She tells us about young men so afraid of ISIS that they’d, quite seriously, rather be executed than sent back. Her eyes fill with tears as she tells of one young man she tried to help but was deported. Gunmen killed him as soon as his escort released him in his home country. Petra still wonders what she might have done differently.
She goes on to tell us with wonder about miraculous provision of food and housing, about people who show up to help out of nowhere. She tells us about refugees who are amazed and thankful that Christians would care about them. As we marvel with her, she is quick to point to God, how He led her to this work of service, how He has given her a husband who stands behind her despite their mutual fears, how God has carried her through long hours and helped her do what she never thought she could, how He continues to act all around her.
Then she mentions a conversation she had early on with Phil and his wife, Shanna. After telling them that she was wondering how she could keep up the work, one of them said, “Serge has offered the church funds for aiding refugees. Maybe we can hire you to continue what you’re doing.”
On a June morning in Prague, already awed by this story of God’s steadfast love, I saw the way He had already involved Serge—back in September—despite my reservations! In my mind, I had been trying to stay grounded in reality. In my heart, I had responded as if I had no faith and found myself with little compassion. A young woman of no expertise or experience had a much more realistic picture of reality. Her realism rested on the foundation of the love and faithfulness of Christ. That faith opened her heart to compassion and risk.
I write this in August of 2016. Petra and her volunteers have helped more than 800 refugees in the last year. Besides visiting detention centers and receiving refugees at the train station, Petra is currently helping to resettle 21 Iraqi Assyrian Christians—14 adults and 7 children—who fled the persecution of ISIS.
Petra acknowledges her deep grief over the suffering she sees. She still faces difficult decisions with no clear answers and has times of doubt and fear, but she says that when she calms herself, she knows God is with her. “Every day I feel His presence,” she says, then pauses before adding “And this has been my joy.”
>>> Please pray that God would continue to give Petra, in the midst of this gritty work, His amazing strength and encouragement
>>> Please also consider giving financially to the Serge European Refugee Crisis Fund. We seek partners who can help Petra stabilize these families with tangible experiences of hope in Jesus Christ.